The Patriots starters were not at their best but fortunately for Bill Belichick's troops the backups made up for it as New England completed a 21-point comeback with a 26-24 victory in New Orleans. Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots first victory of the preseason.
-Three's a crowd –The battle to replace Shane Vereen as the third-down back has been one of the more interesting competitions of camp. In the opener it was all James White and the seocnd-year back delivered with a nice performance, mostly as a receiver. Against the Saints it was Dion Lewis making his Patriots debut and he was outstanding. He made an impact in a variety of ways including pass protection. His efforts in that department were the best of the summer among the candidates vying for the job. He also was dynamic with the ball in his hands. White came on in the second half and was impressive as well. It would not be hard to envision both sticking around and contributing to the running back committee based on the Saints game.
-Opportunity knocks –There are some open roster spots for backup receivers and Brandon Gibson and Chris Harper turned in impressive performances with some of their competition on the sidelines. Gibson caught eight of the nine passes thrown his way before limping off with an apparent knee injury late. He came up with some clutch catches to move the chains and has enjoyed a strong summer. Hopefully he won't be sidelines too long by the injury. Harper has to be the most improved player in camp for the Patriots. He has terrific quickness and has shown the ability to catch the ball as well. His 28-yard punt return set up the game-winning field goal and his return ability could help him steal a spot.
-On the flip side – While Lewis, White, Gibson and Harper made the most of their chances, Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms and Travaris Cadet remain out of action. Injuries have prevented them from getting into the mix and the lost reps could hurt their chances. Assuming Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola are locks at receiver, there could be room for two more and time could be running out on Dobson. Cadet has missed a lot of time as well, and if Lewis and White continue their impressive play he may not get a chance to show what he could do. It will be interesting to see if those players can get healthy as the second half of the preseason gets underway.
Whither Bolden? –For the second straight game a healthy Brandon Bolden did not play. Bolden is the team's most versatile back and he's also been productive in a number of roles. While most of his success has come on special teams over the years, he's also been productive when given an opportunity to work out of the backfield. With the team looking to employ a committee approach it would seem that Bolden would be in the mix, but yet he still hasn't played thus far. He's looked strong in practice and hasn't missed much time so it's tough to figure out why Bill Belichick hasn't used him.
Veteran moves – It was a good news, bad news deal for a pair of veteran free agent additions. Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher each came up with solid defensive plays to break up passes, which is the good news. The bad news is the plays came deep in the second half when players of their experience level are usually on the bench watching the youngsters finish things up. McClain knocked a pass away early in the fourth quarter to prevent a potential big play, and Fletcher later came up with a pair of passes defensed that were huge. The first prevented a touchdown when he got his hand inside the receiver's and the second came at a key juncture on a third-and-three just before the two-minute warning. He jumped a slant and knocked the pass away, forcing a punt in a situation where a first down would have ended the game.
Third TE – In the opener the Patriots used Jordan Devey as an extra tight end with depth at the position a bit thin. Devey was traded to San Francisco for Asante Cleveland earlier in the week, so the offense featured Cameron Fleming in that role against New Orleans. Fleming lined up as a third tight end often while also seeing time at his normal right tackle spot. The results weren't overly impressive, however, as the running game out of those looks went nowhere and Fleming was called for a pair of penalties for improper alignment along the way. Scott Chandler's health (he's yet to play this preseason) factors into the depth at tight end as he Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui could form a solid trio that would eliminate the need for a backup offensive lineman manning the position, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Speaking of the offensive line … --While the pass protection was much better (no sacks allowed after seven in the opener) the run blocking struggled mightily. The Patriots had 0 yards on their first 11 carries of the night and many of those runs went to the left side behind Nate Solder. Rookie Shaq Mason opened next to Solder at left guard and that pair was not able to control the line of scrimmage, which led to several negative runs. Mason enjoyed an impressive debut against the Packers in that area but was not nearly as effective in New Orleans.
Kicking it – Stephen Gostkowski nearly made a 57-yard field goal a week after connecting from 56 yards against the Packers. His big leg is becoming a weapon for the Patriots, and it's also noticeable on kickoffs. He finished things by drilling the game-winner from 35 yards out. Fresh off a nice contract extension, Gostkowski is one of the most consistent performers on the team.
Offensive struggles –Tom Brady obviously doesn't need to prove anything but he can't be happy with the performance of the offense thus far this preseason. He played the first three series against the Saints and went three-and-out each time. That came after the opener in which he played the first two series and managed just one first down. In five series this summer Brady has gone three-and-out four times and the Patriots have no points. So what does it mean? Nothing, he's Tom Brady … as Belichick would say, he's pretty good, now.